Argentina face crunch time in World Cup qualifying race
The unthinkable prospect of a World Cup without Argentina or Lionel Messi could move a step closer to becoming reality tomorrow morning (Singapore time), as the South American giants prepare to face arch-rivals Chile in a crucial battle on the road to Russia 2018.
Argentina, who last failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1970, saw their progress towards next year's Finals go awry in 2016 when back-to-back draws with Venezuela and Peru were followed by losses to Paraguay and Brazil.
Although they bounced back to beat Colombia 3-0 in a home qualifier last November, they remain outside the automatic qualifying places in fifth place, with 19 points from 12 games.
With a trip to face Bolivia in the thin air of La Paz awaiting them next Tuesday - where Argentina have rarely performed well - it means the two-time World Cup-winners can ill afford to slip up against the Chileans.
Argentina defeated Chile in Santiago earlier in the qualifiers, winning 2-1 in March last year.
But, since then, Chile inflicted another soul-destroying defeat on the Argentinians in a major final, winning the Copa America on penalties last June, a year after an identical outcome in the 2015 tournament.
Chile, though, are grappling with their own set of problems, notably the suspension of Arturo Vidal and a fitness concern surrounding Alexis Sanchez.
Tomorrow morning's other showpiece game in South America sees Brazil take on Uruguay in Montevideo.
Brazil have transformed their qualifying campaign with six straight victories since new coach Tite took over last year, following the Copa America debacle where the five-time World Cup winners were eliminated in the group stage.
His biggest headache will be attempting to find an adequate back-up to Manchester City starlet Gabriel Jesus, who is injured.
Though there is no obvious like-for-like replacement, Tite still has plenty of attacking options with a strike force led by Neymar, while Liverpool duo Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho could also provide attacking thrust.
Uruguay also have a problem in attack with Barcelona star Luis Suarez suspended.
That is likely to mean that Edinson Cavani will shoulder the goal-scoring threat for Uruguay with support from Diego Rolan. - AFP
- Colombia v Bolivia
- Paraguay v Ecuador
- Uruguay v Brazil
- Venezuela v Peru